“if Out Shooting Horses is a star, I Refuse aspires to be a supernova.”
In the dark before dawn, on a suspension bridge in Oslo, an aging man in a frayed reefer jacket takes his place in the row of fishermen and casts out his line. At daybreak a shiny, new Mercedes stops on the bridge. He and the driver recognize one another as childhood friends, best friends, who have been apart three decades or more. After a brief conversation, both awkward and revealing, the Mercedes vanishes into the gloom of the early morning.
This meeting sets in motion I Refuse, the new novel from Norwegian author Per Petterson of Out Shooting Horses fame. The chance encounter of old friends isn’t about the renewal of ancient connections. Rather, it begins an excavation of the past, a depth exploration of sundered bonds of friendship and family. The narrative shifts like a kaleidoscope to juxtapose disparate times, places, and viewpoints. At the novel’s heart is the mystery of what shaped these people, what set them in motion against one another in such a way that their histories are largely a catalog of loss and absence.
The first chapter is titled “Jim ∙ September 2006.” Jim is the fisherman. The next chapter is “Tommy ∙ 1962.” Tommy is the man in the Mercedes, but in 1962 he is a ten-year-old boy from a hardscrabble home. His mother is frantically calling him to save his dog from an icy pond. His mother could walk into the water to save the dog, but instead she waits as Tommy swims in freezing water over his head to bring the dog to safety. The motif of dangerous ice recurs later in the book when Jim and Tommy ice skate and hear the ice cracking beneath them. Jim pushes Tommy down in his haste to escape but both survive. In the bond between them is the suggestion of something that might have survived and grown but, in fact, did not.
The third chapter is “Tommy ∙ Spring 2006 ∙ 1966.” In 2006 the police call to ask him to pick up his father. In 1966, when Tommy could no longer tolerate his father’s violence toward himself and his three sisters, he breaks his father’s leg with a baseball bat. His mother had vanished without a trace two years earlier, and now his father vanishes for forty years (although once Tommy glimpses him beneath a clock outside a rail station). Tommy finds another man to raise him and eventually gains a joyless wealth in finance. For reasons that remain shadowed, Jim attempts suicide as a youth and remains afflicted in spirit throughout his life.
In one of the long and powerful sentences that give sinew to I Refuse, Tommy visits Jim in 1971 after Jim’s suicide attempt and recalls a night when as boys they used sleeping bags and didn’t worry about rain:
“The wind came high through branches and made a sound so powerful, so peaceful, and the cold air gently stroked my face, and it never rained that night, and it didn’t snow, and Jim lay beside me, sleeping soundlessly with heather in his hair, and when I leaned over, he wasn’t dead, and each time I went back to sleep, we were fifteen years old, and life and sleep were the same floating thing, and there was nothing wrong in this world.”
Though the narrative has a surging force that can’t be refused, why does I Refuse fail to rise to the level of Out Shooting Horses? Much is shared between the two novels—the chance meeting of older men who knew each other in childhood, the absence and loss of parents, the complex narrative movement back and forth in time.
But if Out Shooting Horses is a star, I Refuse aspires to be a supernova. Its chapter titles draw attention to the complexity of the shifts back and forth in time and in narrative voice. Its intricately wound sentences compel rather than entice. The later lives of each of Tommy’s parents return to the story in ways that are improbable. And Jim’s desire to die seems a contradiction to who he is, a contradiction that needs a deeper explanation to be accepted and believed.
With respect to the improbable, it’s worth recalling that Petterson has the narrator in Out Stealing Horses say, “Lars is Lars even though I saw him last when he was ten years old, and now he’s past sixty, and if this had been something in a novel it would just have been irritating.”